Editor-in-Chief & Publisher: MIR JAVED RAHMAN


ON TOP OF THE WORLD


Issue Date 25 - 31 Mar, 2017 at 2:00 PM

ON TOP OF THE WORLD

"Miss Blenheim.” Kirsteen rose to her feet and entered the interview room. Two men, bearded and wind-burnt, stared at her slight figure. “I’m Alistair Reed, Chief Meteorologist, and this is Fergus Ruan, my assistant. I’ll be blunt. Conditions on the summit of Ben Nevis are brutal during the winter. It’s too tough a job for a woman.”
“I think you are mistaken, Mr. Reed. My father came second in the first race to the summit in 1898.”
“No mean achievement, but that was your father. Not you.”
“True, but I had climbed to the top, at the age of 12, to watch his victory.”
“You didn’t hire a pony?”
“No. I went on foot.” She gave the men an uncompromising stare.
“Have you ever experienced severe winter conditions?”
“Yes, my late grandfather was a mountaineer. He took me on winter treks in the Cairngorms.”
“What experience have you of meteorology?”
“I’ve studied every book I can get hold of. And I am a fast learner.”
“Do your parents approve of your application?”
“Father is a sea captain, and he is abroad most of the time. He is thrilled that I want to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. Mother passed away five years ago.”
“I am very sorry to hear that,
Miss Blenheim.”
Half an hour later she was summoned back into the room.
“We have decided to offer you the post on a trial basis. If we’re not satisfied you will go down with the last pony train in three weeks’ time when the Summit Hotel closes for winter. We look forward to working with you.”

Alistair met her outside a hotel in Fort William and they hitched a ride on a farmer’s cart to Glen Nevis. It was late September and both were dressed in windproof clothing and sturdy boots.
“No ponies today, I’m afraid, Miss Blenheim. They are busy taking winter supplies up to the observatory. We’ll have to tackle in on foot.”
She stared up at the ridge.
“It looks as if we are lucky. No cloud on the summit.”
They crossed the bridge over the River Nevis.
“Looking forward to the job?”
“Yes, I am. Once the Summit Hotel packs up for winter I imagine conditions are hard up there.”
“Very. Last year we recorded a temperature of -11 degree centigrade and 20 feet of snow on the summit plateau.”
By now he was striding out fast and Kirsteen knew he was testing her. By the time they reached the steep screes leading to the summit several hours later, she was 20 yards ahead. Later, at the cairn on top, he had the good grace to chuckle.
“You’ve put me firmly in my place.”
She turned a pair of innocent green eyes on him.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired, Mr. Reed. It’s been a nice afternoon stroll.”

ON TOP OF THE WORLD
That evening he took her to dine at the Summit Hotel. The Misses Gribben, the two sisters who owned it, were busy packing up, ready for their descent. Fergus Ruan, the other meteorologist, joined them. He was a dour Scot with a dry sense of humour.
“Come winter and you’ll be wishing you were down in Fort William sampling its delights instead of turning into an icicle up here.”
“Not at all, Mr. Ruan. And I have no intention of turning into an icicle.”
The meal was dished up by Mrs. Maclaren, a thin, withered woman who gave her a penetrating stare.
“So, you’ll be spending the winter with me in the hotel. I hope you’ve brought your hot water bottle.” She pursed her lips. “You’ll be needing it. My chilblains were wicked last year.”
Afterwards, she showed Kirsteen her room and softened.
“It’ll be good to have another body close by. It can be lonesome in winter, especially when the men are busy with their measurements.”
“Do you always stay up here?”
“For the past three years. And a good job I do! I’ve had a blizzard blowing open the front door, water trickling into the dining room and burst pipes. Not to mention the wind howling. Anyway, it wouldn’t be proper, you up here on your own with those two weathermen.”
“Doesn’t your family worry about you?”
“I lost my only sister two years back and the rest emigrated to America.”
“You don’t feel cut off?”
“I don’t mind my own company. My husband loved the mountains. He was a shepherd in Sutherland.”
“How did you lose him?”
“He was searching for lambs when a blizzard blew up from nowhere. They found him several days later, frozen, clutching two lambs in his arms. It reminds me of him, being up here.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Not at all.”
By the time the last ponies arrived, Kirsteen had decided.
“I’d like to stay for the winter, Mr. Reed.”
“We’d like to have you, Miss. Blenheim.” He put a friendly hand on her shoulder. “And how about dropping the formalities? I’m Alistair.” She smiled.
“Kirsteen.”
She left the room feeling she was no longer just an employee. Alistair was treating her as a friend and she was warming to him.
As the beasts plodded off down the snow-covered track, however, loneliness hit her like a brick wall. The bleak, stony summit, and the fearsome black cliffs dropping down to Coire Leis 2,000 feet below, sent a shiver through her.
Alistair must have sensed her uneasiness for he led her over to the tower topping the observatory.
“Do you know the history of the tower? It was erected 10 years ago in 1894. The early meteorologists endured some hard winters. They were unable to take measurements and there was a nasty incident. One of them was caught in a snowstorm and couldn’t find the entrance.”
“How high is it?”
“Thirty feet. It means we can get inside the observatory even when the Ben is at her most vicious. I’d like you to be responsible for the anemometer. We need wind strength measurements four times a day. And we keep a log book of each day’s weather. I wonder whether you’d like to take that over.”
“Very much, Alistair. What about cooking and cleaning?”
“We all chip in to help Mrs. Maclaren at the hotel from time to time. I’m sure she’d appreciate another pair of hands.”
That evening she gave Mrs. Maclaren help with sorting the hotel bedding.
“It’s a strange job for a girl to take on.” She gave Kirsteen a look. “Not running away from trouble, are you?” Kirsteen smiled.
“No, Mrs. Maclaren. I just wanted
a challenge.”
“You’ll have it here. There’s never a dull moment in the winter. Spiders sheltering from the weather in the bath, ceilings caving in. Why, I’ve seen the washing freeze solid.” She pursed her lips. “And not even a wee drop of soda to take off the chill. This is a temperance hotel.”
“How long have the meteorologists worked here, Mrs. Maclaren?”
“Call me Morag, dearie. We’d best be on friendly terms seeing as we’re here for the winter. It’s Fergus Ruan’s first year. He came up in the spring. He’s an ex-trawler skipper turned weatherman. Tough as old boots and dry as cinders. But he’s got a kindly streak and he’s good at his work.”
Alistair Reed used to be an explorer, so I’ve heard.”
“Aye. Expeditions to Greenland and out of the way places like that.”
“Is he married?”
“That I couldn’t say. He’s not one to talk about himself.”
Kirsteen wondered. There was no sign of a ring on his finger, but that meant nothing. She dropped off to sleep to the tune of rattling windows, the banshee howl of the ceaseless wind and the banging of a distant door.

They woke to a white-out. Visibility was less than six feet and the air temperature was a bitter -7.
“Do you still do the readings in this, Alistair?” He nodded.
“We never miss, if possible. That’s what the lifelines I showed you are for. I’ll come with you.”
It was the most terrifying walk of her life. Holding the rope in one hand, she followed behind Alistair’s spectral figure. Snow crunched under her feet and she was in a desolate, empty world, unable to see, fearful of the precipices that lurked all around. Once, she heard the sound of falling rocks and was grateful when Alistair reached back and touched her gloved hand.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Whilst she took the readings, he stood between her and the bitter wind blowing off the north face and she was grateful for the small kindness. When she had taken the readings, he bent close to be heard above the moan of the gale.
“I’m glad you’re with us for the winter, Kirsteen. You and Fergus are the best workers I’ve had.”
They returned to the observatory, relief flooding through her when she saw the ice-encased buildings. Inside, Fergus took the pipe from his mouth and grinned.
“Like walking into the gates of hell, isn’t it? I froze the first time; kept thinking I was going to step out into space.”
When Fergus left to check the humidity levels, Kirsteen brewed coffee and they sat down by the wood fire. She felt relaxed.
What made Fergus choose to work up here? Wasn’t he happy working on the trawlers?
“His brother was on the deep-sea boats off Iceland. One winter the trawler got top-heavy with ice and she rolled. His brother was unlucky. He didn’t make it.”
“How dreadful!”
“Fergus couldn’t face the sea after that. I think he finds peace up here.” Alistair gave her a long look.
“And you, Kirsteen? Why did you choose the mountain? There are other weather stations down below.”
She sipped her coffee.
“I suppose I’ve been looking for peace, too. I was friendly with a newly commissioned officer from one of the Scottish regiments. I fell in love and we got engaged. Then he was posted abroad.”
You never heard from him again?” She nodded.
“When this job came up I thought, this is for me. I wanted to get away from everything and Ben was the answer.”
“Does it still hurt?” he asked softly.
“Sometimes, in the small hours. But the mountain is proving a wonderful healer.”
“Kirsteen, will you walk along the ridge with me tomorrow? We always take it easy on the Sabbath.”
“There is something I need to know first. You aren’t married or committed to someone down below?”
“No. There is nobody.”
“Then, yes, I’d like to come with you.”

Kirsteen had just finished her entry in the log when Alistair hurried in.
“Quick, Kirsteen! There’s something
I want to show you outside. It’s
very unusual.”
He led her to the edge of the plateau. She looked down and gasped. There, on the cloud below, were two huge shadows surrounded by a halo containing all the delicate pastel shades of the rainbow.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! What is it?”
“A Brocken Spectre and glory. It’s the sun casting our shadow on to the clouds.” He moved a few steps closer and their outlines merged.
“Look,” he said quietly, “we’ve drawn close.”
When he put an arm round her she did not draw back, and there was magic in the air when he held her. Happiness welled up in her.

The men were out early relaying the safety lines. Mrs. Maclaren finished mopping the kitchen floor.
“We’ll have a spring clean of their rooms while they’re busy, dear. You take Mrs. Alistair’s and I’ll do Fergus’.”
Kirsteen was dusting the mantelpiece when she saw the photograph. It was of Alistair holding the hand of a bride in white dress and train. They were looking at each other and smiling. Beside it sat an open birthday card.
Alistair, darling, a happy birthday, my love. How I miss you up there on the mountain top. And a row of kisses followed.
It was shock that hit Kirsteen first; shock that he had been dishonest. His words came back to her. There is nobody.
How could he have told her such an untruth? All the time he had a loving wife waiting for him, yet he had put his arm round her waist and kissed her cheek. What a fool she had been!

Mrs. Maclaren found her in tears and patted her arm in a motherly way.
“I’m sorry, dearie. I had no idea. He keeps things to himself. Those things weren’t there the last time I did his room. What you need is a strong cup of tea.”
He came back an hour later.
“Thank you for doing my room, Kirsteen. I’m afraid it was in a mess.”
Then he saw the coldness in her face.
“It is a good thing I did. I don’t
take kindly to being led up the garden path.”
He looked shocked.
“What are you talking about?”
“The photograph and birthday card.”
“No!” His voice sounded strangled, hurt. “You have it all wrong.”
“You told me you weren’t married!”
“I wanted to tell you,” he replied brokenly. “But I couldn’t. The fact is, both of us were climbing enthusiasts. We were tackling a face in Wales. Petra was leading and I was following her up. A piton broke loose. She didn’t have a chance. We had only been married six months. The birthday card was the last thing she gave me.”
He was crying openly now and Kirsteen put her arms round him, holding him tightly.

to be continued...





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